How to deal with a sensitive preschooler

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There aren’t many three-year-olds who don’t cry when their favourite toy gets broken or when they fall and skin their knee.

But what about the kids who get upset and overwhelmed by nearly everything life throws at them: an unfamiliar food on their plate, a change in plans, an itchy tag on their T-shirt. They seem to cry at the drop of a hat and they can take ages to calm down.

“Sensitivity is a personality trait. Some kids are just born more sensitive than others,” says Dr. Maggie Mamen, a family psychologist in Ottawa. “Some kids have a built-in resilience and others just have more trouble processing their environment.”

Those who are deeply sensitive to things such as social interactions and changes in routine need a calm, caring adult to help them navigate those emotional waters. The trouble is, it can be extremely frustrating for parents to deal with endless whining and crying – especially if you’re trying to get through the grocery line or drop your child off at daycare and get to work!

So first, try to step back and take a deep breath, which is sometimes – admittedly – easier said than done. Then, start by empathizing with your child: “I know you wanted to go to grandma’s house, and it’s really disappointing. I wanted to go, too.” Validating her feelings can open the compression valve and allow her to let off steam. Ask if she’d like to be held, if she’d like you to stay close by, or if she wants to be left alone. Different kids respond to different methods. But be sure to only give it a few minutes.

“It’s important for your child to gradually learn how to pull herself together, and that you will listen when she stops crying,” says Dr. Mamen. “Tell her to let you know when she is ready to talk and use her words.” After she calms down, gently move on and don’t dwell on what made her so upset.

Later on, it might be useful to revisit the situation and ask her to talk about what she was feeling, and focus on how it turned out okay in the end.

“As they get older, children can process previous experiences and use their memories to integrate them into a current situation, so the next time it happens they can deal with it better,” says Dr. Mamen.

It’s also useful for parents to look at potential meltdown triggers: Was it before a mealtime? Had she missed her nap that morning? Sometimes eliminating something from her diet (such as wheat, dairy or certain dyes) can make a huge difference.

Sometimes looking at your own reactions can be revealing,too. “Crying can get parents into a protective mode, or can be so irritating that we just give in to what they want. As with any behaviour, there may be a secondary gain to be had from crying, such as having an advantage over a sibling or getting attention from their parents. It can be a learned behaviour; if it works, then they do it again. And that can be a slippery slope.”

When crying is a concern

  • Is your child just sensitive or is there something more going on? “I don’t think we should pathologize the issue of sensitivity,” says Dr. Maggie Mamen. “There’s a pretty wide range of normal. I don’t think there should be a knee jerk reaction to label it.”
  • Parents of sensitive children often worry about sensory integration and processing disorders, whose symptoms include oversensitivity to touch, sights and sounds, social and emotional problems, clumsiness, and impulse control, as well as autism. But most kids who seem highly sensitive are just that and nothing more. “The danger is in labeling the  child, and then expecting them to be anxious or sensitive, when in fact they may just be fine and need lots of reassurance.”
  • As always, follow your instincts: “If your child’s sensitivity is really affecting his life, it doesn’t hurt to ask your pediatrician to refer you to an occupational therapist to have him assessed,” says Dr. Mamen. “But remember, you have to look for clusters of behaviours and symptoms.”
  • Just being sensitive to light or sound, or being a picky eater, or having tantrums over a change in routine is not an indication of a neurological disorder. “But when you start to see patterns, getting it checked out is never a bad thing. Even for your own peace of mind.”

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2012

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